According to Richard Thomas, spokesman for Traffic, the wildlife trade monitoring network, the people who are trying to sneak endangered animals out of their native environments are getting more audacious than ever in their attempts.
"We've had people who put birds into tubes to stop their wings from flapping and others who stitch the eyelids of falcons shut to keep them quiet," Thomas told AOL News.
When he was detained at the Suvarnabhumi International Airport, authorities reportedly found three suitcases stuffed with 88 Indian star tortoises, 33 elongated tortoises, seven radiated tortoises, six mata mata turtles, four Southeast Asian narrow-headed soft-shell turtles, three Aldabra tortoises, one pig-nosed turtle and a parrot.
Alongside these, he packed 34 ball pythons; two boa constrictors; several milk snakes, corn snakes and king snakes; and a hog-nosed snake.
Thomas says Thailand has become a known hub for wildlife smuggling, mainly because rising affluence in Asia makes rare wildlife a status symbol for many.
"Most of these animals get sold as pets," he said. "In this arrest, many of the animals originally came from Africa, such as the ploughshare tortoise, which is from Madagascar."
But while Asia is a booming market for smuggled wildlife, Thomas says the U.S. and Europe are also big markets.
"America is still a major market for smuggled animals, but there is some legislation in the works that will ensure that any wildlife that comes into the country must be legally sourced," he said.
Although most of the wildlife smuggled onto airplanes is, by necessity, relatively compact in size, Thomas says some smugglers have been able to sneak elephants across national boarders using cars and other methods of transport.
Some of the more audacious attempts at smuggling include these:
- The aforementioned live tiger cub, which was found in check-in baggage in August. The 2-month-old tiger was sedated and hidden among stuffed tiger toys in the baggage of a Thai woman bound for Iran.
- In April 2008, a smuggler tried to get a leg up on authorities by sneaking some native geckos and other wildlife out of Australia inside hollowed-out books.
- In July 2009, a German man visiting New Zealand was caught trying to board a flight at Christchurch Airport with endangered geckos and skinks hidden in his underwear.
- In July 2009, customs inspectors at Hartsfield-Jackson Atlanta International Airport found two Asian bonytongues (Scleropages formosus) packed inside a cooler bag containing plastic bottles of fish sauce belonging to a woman arriving from Vietnam. U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service inspectors found two black plastic bags inside the bottles, each containing a live fish.
- In May 2009, a man was charged with smuggling songbirds into the United States via Los Angeles by hiding more than a dozen of them in an elaborate, custom-tailored pair of leggings during a flight from Vietnam to LA. According to Thomas, the authorities got suspicious when they noticed all the feathers and bird droppings falling from the alleged perp's pants.
- In July 2010, officials in Mexico arrested a man attempting to smuggle into the country 18 monkeys from Peru that had been wrapped inside socks concealed in the luggage.
- In July 2007, a man was charged with stealing three endangered iguanas from a nature preserve in Fiji and smuggling them into the United States in his prosthetic leg.
"If these animals don't exist in the wild, no one can see them anywhere," he said. "Plus, it's important to their native ecosystems that these animals remain wild. Otherwise, nature gets out of balance."
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